Buddhism and the Natural Sciences

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu..

This lecture was delivered by Dr. Cobb at several venues in Asia during the summer of 2002. Used by permission of the author. The text was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


The world today is in bondage to the quest of wealth, and it accepts mainstream economic thought as its theology. This economic thought models itself on the physics of the nineteenth century. It treats human beings as isolated substances. Both the goal of wealth and this atomistic understanding of human beings are in radical contradiction with Buddhist teaching.

Let me begin my saying that I am poorly informed with respect to the history of the relation of Buddhism and the natural sciences as these developed in India, China, Korea, and Japan. This is not because I question the importance of these sciences. I have no doubt, for example, that people in these countries learned much about the human body that Westerners are only now beginning to appropriate. What role Buddhism played in these and other studies in either India or China is a question that interests me, but not one that I can answer.

Simply because of the limits of my knowledge, I am speaking only of the relation of Buddhism to natural sciences as they developed in the West. This may be the most important question today, because these sciences, for good or ill, have overwhelmed most of the South and East Asian sciences. These Western sciences are the ones that are taught in universities in India, China, Korea, and Japan.

I. The Christian History with Science

Clearly the interaction of religious tradition with Western science has been quite different for Buddhism and for Western Christianity. For Buddhism the encounter with this science was an encounter with a foreign system of thought. In the West Christianity and science developed together, sometimes supporting one another, and sometimes in enmity. Current Christianity is a product of centuries of such interaction. In the East, although science as a foreign import, it has generally been viewed as simply different from Buddhism. The struggle that has left deep scars in Christianity has not been part of this history.

My own judgment is that Buddhists have adopted too easily one of the positions to which Christian theology has had recourse -- that of different spheres for the spiritual and natural worlds. To explain this judgment, I will speak briefly of how this resolution came about in the West and my objections to it. I will then elaborate my reasons for hoping for a more serious and critical engagement of Buddhism with the natural sciences.

It was a Christian culture that gave rise to modern Western science. Furthermore, most of the founders of modern science explained their reasons for engaging in scientific work in Christian terms. Although later scientists, who detached themselves entirely from Christianity, preferred a history of science that ignored this explanation, a serious historian of ideas should pay close attention.

The question is why one should devote oneself to long-term, careful observation of nature? Why should one then seek mathematical formulae explaining what one observes?

Some science was, no doubt, motivated by the desire to make advantageous changes in the world. The origin of chemistry in alchemy was of this kind. But in fact modern science did not arise in alchemy. Much more important was astronomy, where no one dreamed of manipulation.

It is also important to note that, during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, Western Europe was not the world center of education, of culture or of wealth. To suppose that the scientific study of nature is a natural by-product of a certain stage of cultural development simply does not fit the facts of world history. The direction of intellectual efforts is typically the result of the particular character of the culture in which these occur.

In Western Europe the culture judged that knowledge of nature was a great good, and the reason that this knowledge was so important was that it was knowledge of God’s working. Furthermore, the conviction that God was rational underlay the confidence that behind the apparently chaotic movements of things there lay a rational harmony that could be mathematically described. In other words, the deep-seated assumption that the universe is the product of an intelligent Creator lay behind the rise of modern science.

The theology that supported this view was a synthesis of Aristotle’s philosophy and the Bible. Something very much like this synthesis had been developed by Muslim thinkers and imported into Christian Europe. Islam made its own contribution to the natural sciences, and if history had favored its cultures more, it might well have been the primary context for their development. We will never know. On the other hand, Eastern Europe, although for a thousand years it had had a higher culture than the West, might never have developed modern science. So I am saying neither that there is something inherent in Christianity as such that gives birth to science nor that no other tradition provides the necessary context. I am only saying that the form that Christianity took in Western Europe after the assimilation of Islamic philosophy in the thirteenth century was uniquely favorable.

The fact that Western Christianity gave birth to science did not mean that the relation was always harmonious. The most famous case of conflict was over Galileo’s discovery of the imperfection of the heavenly bodies. He learned this simply by looking at the moon through a more powerful telescope. Actually there is no conflict between this discovery and the Bible. What led to conflict was that the church had embraced Aristotelian science, which speculated that there was a profound difference between earthly bodies and celestial ones. The latter were supposed to be perfect. The Pope relied on the leading astronomers of the day, and they opposed the new science of Galileo.

Misleadingly, many scientists and historians have emphasized this incident as indicative of the general relationship of the new science and Christianity. The facts are quite otherwise. What is remarkable is that, during a period in which the church persecuted Christian heretics in large numbers and Christian fought one another in terrible wars over theological differences, no scientists lost their lives for overturning the established worldview of Christendom. Many of the leading scientists were deeply religious, some, clergymen. In the eighteenth century, the founder of my own denomination, John Wesley, continued the teaching that natural science provided a second way to the knowledge of God alongside the Bible. In this, he was quite typical of his time.

Indeed, the great majority of thoughtful Christians, at least in the Protestant world, adopted what they understood to be the worldview of science and adapted Christian teaching to that. The main issue in the eighteenth century was whether the creation was so perfect that God never intervened in it, or there were occasions in which God worked miracles. But this was an argument about how to adapt Christian belief to science, not between science and faith.

Even in Wesley’s time there were scientists and philosophers who questioned the positive connection between science and faith. But it was only in the latter part of the nineteenth century that science and theology came into a conflict of socially serious importance. This was over the doctrine of evolution. Heretofore, most people, including most scientists, supposed that the world came into being in more or less its present form. The more complexities science discovered in the world, the more one marveled at the wisdom and power of the Creator. But evolutionary theory proposed that there was an explanation for all this complexity that did not involve any creative act. The present astonishing order was the outgrowth of natural, purposeless processes.

Obviously, this was in sharp conflict with a literal reading of the Bible, and this was in itself disturbing. But the church had dealt with that kind of conflict before. From ancient times, the literal reading was often subordinated to others. Protestantism recovered an emphasis on the literal reading, but not in the sense of contemporary Fundamentalism. That movement arose in reaction to more liberal Christian responses to evolutionary theory in the early part of the twentieth century.

The deeper problem was that the worldview that society and culture had accepted as scientific was mechanistic. Hence it was thought that science required that the natural world be understood as nothing more than matter in motion. From this world, human beings had, understandably, exempted themselves. The worldview that resulted from this stratagem was probably the most dualistic in all of history. Its advantage was that it secured to human beings freedom and responsibility and value. It undergirded the development of the doctrine of individual rights.

Evolutionary theory destroyed this dualistic solution to the problem brought about by the scientific worldview. Now science was invading this privileged sanctuary. It was claiming, in principle, that human beings are part of the mechanical world system, that they can be explained like everything else in terms of matter in motion.

My point here is that evolutionary theory, developed in the context of a mechanistic worldview, was a real threat to faith. We should not regard those who rejected it as simply ignorant and benighted. To this day the acceptance of the standard form of evolutionary theory has profoundly negative consequences.

One response was Fundamentalism. The authority of the Bible, read quite straightforwardly, supersedes the authority of empirical evidence and scientific theory. The theory of evolution is simply wrong.

Most Christians could not follow that route. A second response was to develop a different worldview in which Christians could both affirm the empirical evidence for evolution and deny that it has the reductionistic implications given it by the mechanistic worldview. Evolution can then be understood as calling forth a new, nonmaterialistic naturalism. It can also be understood as showing us the way God creates, so that the emphasis could shift from the one creative act in the past to the continuing creativity of God in the present. This sort of view played a considerable role in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The process theology that I represent is one form of this response. The most famous recent proponent was Teilhard de Chardin.

From my point of view, it is unfortunate that a third response, which followed the lead of Immanuel Kant, became the most widespread. Kant was responding to the earlier challenge of David Hume, who showed that the underlying assumptions of both science and theology were not supportable empirically. The focus here was causality. A mechanistic view of nature presupposed causes as necessary relations. Event A causes event B to happen. The idea of creation asserts that God is the cause of the world. Hume showed that sense experience gives us no access to causes of this kind. Kant argued that empirical experience in itself tells us nothing about the world, even the phenomenal world. We know this only as it is organized by the human mind. The mind imposes causal, as well as spatio-temporal relations upon it. But when we come to understanding the human mind and human behavior, we apply wholly different categories.

Kantian dualism of the phenomena, on the one side, and Geist, on the other, superseded the Cartesian dualism of matter and mind for most German intellectual work. It was quite influential in the English-speaking world as well. It lent itself to the solution of the crisis introduced by evolutionary theory. One could assert that for science mechanistic evolutionary theory is true, and that human beings are fully part of the evolved world. But for the humanities, including theology, this understanding is irrelevant. These proceed as if human existence is of an entirely different order. We have now the great divide within the university between the sciences and the humanities and a profoundly split consciousness throughout Western culture.

In the twentieth century, scientists discovered many things that did not fit the mechanistic worldview. Einstein’s relativity theory broke with it in important ways. The whole idea of matter gave way progressively to that of energy. Quantum theory was driven into extreme paradoxes when it tried to explain itself in mechanistic terms.

The public has been fascinated by these breaks with traditional Western science and has responded enthusiastically to the writings of those scientists who have come up with new views. Unfortunately, however, the vast majority of scientists have accepted the Kantian dualism, although their work is not now, as Kant thought, to interpret nature in mechanistic terms. They have given up the effort to understand. Their task is to develop mathematical formulae that enable them to predict the results of experiments. On the other side, humanists develop hermeneutical methods for the interpretation of documents with no regard for scientific thought. Philosophers, analogously, have given up the synthetic task that was theirs so long. They are now satisfied with analysis, phenomenological description, or deconstruction. The work of rethinking the world as inclusive of both nature and human beings in the light of the best information available is largely excluded from the universities.

II. The Buddhist History with Science

Buddhism has a very different relation to natural science. There is little in Buddhism to encourage people to devote their lives to scientific experiment or to seeking the laws of nature. Buddhists are more likely to attend to nature in its concrete particularity than to seek abstract universal principles. The knowledge to be gained by scientific study would not be expected to advance the movement toward enlightenment.

On the other hand, Buddhism is free from those attachments that have led Christians to resist the acceptance of scientific findings. There is no attachment to a traditional cosmology that is threatened by scientific advance, or at least, any such attachment would fall immediately under Buddhist critique. There is no doctrine of creation that is undercut by new ways of understanding how the world came into being. There is no claim to a special status of human beings that is weakened by evolutionary theory.

Seeing this, Buddhists have sometimes asserted superiority over Christianity. The enlightenment to which they point is not vulnerable to new empirical findings or scientific theories. It is a matter of experience that is self-verifying.

In one sense this is true. Buddhism is not bound up with doctrines of the sort that have led Christians into conflict with science. It does not affirm a God whose existence is problematic, so that belief requires the support of arguments whose foundations are vulnerable to scientific advance. The belief in human freedom, so central to Christianity, is not thematically developed in Buddhism. One attraction of Buddhism to Christians since the latter part of the nineteenth century has been this freedom from controversial doctrines.

However, as I see it, Buddhist discourse is not, in fact, consistent with every possible worldview. Quite the contrary. Buddhism would make no sense if the world were in fact nothing but matter in motion. A science formulated in those terms may not threaten Buddhism in its specifics, but it contradicts Buddhism fundamentally and generally. Sociologically and psychologically, one who is convinced of the truth of the modern scientific worldview will have no interest in listening to Buddhist discourse or in pursuing Buddhist enlightenment. Buddhists have as much reason as Christians to oppose this worldview.

Indeed, they have an additional basis for opposition. They can appeal to newer developments in physics as supporting a worldview to which they came independently. Especially the phenomena of quanta can be more intelligibly understood if we adopt the view of pratitya samutpada.

This advantage of Buddhism in the interpretation of contemporary scientific findings has been widely noticed. It has certainly increased interest in Buddhism in the West. But on the whole the scientists who note this connection are not sophisticated in their understanding of Buddhism and in fact make little use of this new way of thinking in their continuing work.

I hope for more. I am also very open to learning from you of contemporary physicists in Japan who are engaged in reconstructing physics on the lines suggested by Buddhism. I have heard occasionally of such work, but this program seems not to have gone very far.

III. Obstacles to Buddhist Involvement

It is my suspicion that another Buddhist teaching inhibits such a program. Buddhists are often quite suspicious of the ability of language to avoid misleading us. They are willing to employ language as "skillful means", but the truth to which they point still eludes language.

To develop science we must formulate concepts and theories. One may, in fact should, recognize that concepts and theories are subject to correction, but the goal is better concepts and theories. Buddhists rightly emphasize that we should not attach ourselves to concepts and theories. But too strong an emphasis here on nonattachment can reduce the interest in generating new concepts and new theories. Without these, there will be no progress in science and specifically now, no breaking of the power of the deeply entrenched mechanistic worldview. This will give way only as it is shown that there is another way to think about nature that explains all that has been previously explained mechanistically and more besides. If Buddhism could give a greater spiritual value to the understanding of the world, its potential contribution to the progress of science and of a scientifically-informed worldview might be realized.

What would it take to persuade Buddhists that this kind of involvement in an intellectual enterprise is truly important? I don’t know. As far as I can tell, understanding alone is not sufficiently important in Buddhist tradition to call forth such efforts. The chances may be better with compassion. But why would compassion call one to devote one’s life to transforming science and the scientific worldview?

The answer, I believe, is that the inherited Western worldview has done, and is doing, great harm to human beings and the other creatures with which we share the planet. Viewing nature as a machine has led human beings to treat it that way. We are moving toward a crisis of global proportions, and our mechanistic vision deters us from taking the drastic steps needed to change direction. When human beings, or some human beings, are treated as part of this mechanistic world, they are terribly exploited. This has been true in my own country of much of the treatment of people of other races, especially Native Americans and Africans. It still leads to lack of sensitivity to the underclass and to peoples in other parts of the world, especially the poor. We too often view them as "others" rather than in terms of our kinship and interconnectedness. To change our basic way of perceiving the natural world and all its human inhabitants is an urgent expression of compassion.

Just after writing this I received a message from the Institute of Science in Society, with its headquarters in England. I was pleased to find that a similar analysis of the harm done by this worldview is gaining more institutional expression. Listen to a few paragraphs of the ISIS communication.

The new trade-related intellectual properties regime in industrialised nations is an unprecedented privatisation of knowledge, which has also encouraged the biopiracy of indigenous knowledge and resources on a global scale. This regime is being imposed on the rest of the world through the World Trade Organisation, as part of a relentless drive towards economic globalisation.

Economic globalisation is widely acknowledged to be the major cause of poverty, social disintegration and environmental degradation over the past decades. At the same time, it is obstructing any attempt to reverse the trends and to implement a global agenda for sustainability.

Fifty thousand gathered in Porto Alegre in February at the Second World Social Forum to voice unanimous opposition to economic globalisation and to call for alternative models of world governance and finance.

Almost no one is targeting the predominant, reductionist knowledge system of the west, that has provided the intellectual impetus for globalisation as well as the instruments of destruction and oppression. It has also marginalised indigenous knowledge systems and driven countless to extinction.

But western science itself is undergoing a profound paradigm change towards an organic perspective that has deep affinities with indigenous knowledge systems around the world. We have all the means to bring a truly sustainable and equitable world into being, only the political will, and the appropriate vision, is missing. We need some means to help focus attention on how that could be done, and to underpin a new model of world governance and finance.

Perhaps, however, there may be a barrier in Buddhist teaching to applying compassion to this kind of task. In talking with Buddhists, I find a certain ambivalence as to the expression of compassion. Some say that compassion always expresses itself in seeking the enlightenment of others. If so, improving social and cultural conditions is not an appropriate expression of compassion. Others believe that relief of suffering of any kind, even if it does not lead toward enlightenment, is a proper expression of compassion. But even for these, it often seems that the models of compassionate action are typically spontaneous responses to immediately apparent suffering. For those who think in this way, changing the structures of thought and perception built into so much of our science would be too indirect a contribution to the relief of suffering to be a true expression of Buddhist compassion.

Nevertheless, I believe many Buddhists recognize that social systems cause much of the suffering in the world and that these social systems are grounded in conceptual systems. Changing these conceptual systems may be a particularly important contribution, in the long run, to the relief of suffering. If Buddhists can think in this way, their compassion can draw them into the work of critique and reconstruction of the worldview that still underlies most of Western thinking. Since Western social and natural sciences shape the thinking of many Easterners today as well, the problem is not limited to the West.

IV. Potential Buddhist Contributions

If Buddhists were motivated to enter vigorously into the discussion, they could contribute a great deal. The ISIS refers to the emergence of more organic thinking in Western science. This is certainly progress. Organisms are interactive and are centers of creative activity. To understand the world as composed of organisms rather than mechanisms could affect public policy for the better, as well as the formulation of scientific theory.

But the organismic thinking that dominated Medieval understanding in the West also had its limits. It supported a hierarchical vision of society that offered little freedom to individuals. In any case, there were good reasons to turn from it in the pursuit of a more adequate scientific account.

What Buddhism offers goes beyond a model of organisms. It accents nonduality and the absence of substance. This allows for the reality of the individual, but not for individuals apart from others. The individuals involved have no permanence; they are continuously passing away. They are what they are by virtue of what all other individuals are. All things interpenetrate.

There is much in quantum theory today that points in the direction of this vision of reality. It is far more appropriate to the evidence than the substantialist, materialist models that still influence the formulations. As noted above, this has been widely recognized. Yet the needed change has not occurred. The Western mind has not succeeded in finding the formulations it needs.

Consider the way in which quantum theory is still talked about and developed. In the first place, it is commonly called "quantum mechanics," despite the nonmechanical character of the events with which it deals. It still speaks frequently of "particles", although that to which it refers cannot have the characteristics that term connotes. Alternately it speaks of "waves", although the idea of a wave implies a substantial medium, such as water or air, and it has long been established that no such substantial medium underlies quantum phenomena.

In other words, there is now considerable evidence from science that Buddhists are correct, but scientists do not know how to think about the kind of world that Buddhists have been affirming for more than two millennia. Buddhists should be able to interpret the data in terms of a vision of pratitya samutpada. This should provide a far more coherent vision.

Until recently scientists were in quest of such a vision. It was their inability to attain it in the twentieth century that drove them to the kind of irrationalism that now characterizes much of science. Scientists often say that they are no longer trying to understand nature; they seek only to make predictions that they can experimentally check. This provides the knowledge needed for technology to develop. What the real world is like, or even whether there is any such world apart from our ideas or language about it are, for some scientists, now irrelevant questions.

The theoretical result of this indifference to what is real is sometimes an extreme dualism. It is supposed that there is the world of thought or language, and there is the world of nature. In this dualistic view, how they are related, or whether they are related at all does not matter. At other times, the result is an extreme idealism. It is supposed that the world of language is the only world there is. We are told that there can be no experience of reality other than of language.

I am not sure that anyone ever believes these theoretical results. But because sophisticated people accept these theories as the best available, they influence the direction of inquiry and thereby of policy. They do great harm. If taken with full seriousness they would direct those who believe them away from any effort to attain Buddhist enlightenment.

This abandonment of the intellectual task of understanding the world is as detrimental to society as was the mechanistic view that it partly replaced. Buddhists could help greatly to restore intelligibility to science. It is my conviction that science, as well as society as a whole, would gain by this change.

It may seem strange to appeal to Buddhism to provide intelligibility. Buddhism has long taught us not to put trust in concepts and conceptual understanding. It recognized that the vision it offered worked against the tendency of concepts to objectify, to reify, to rigidify, and to separate. Concepts typically encourage the dualism of subject and object rather than the nondual vision that comes closer to the truth. But in fact in the process of criticizing concepts and attachment to them, Buddhists have developed new concepts that would be far more helpful than the old ones in formulating scientific theories. There is a tremendous opportunity here.

IV. A Whiteheadian Postscript

My conviction that the continuing influence of substantialist, materialist, mechanistic, reductionist thinking blocks a movement toward understanding comes from the influence of the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. He struggled against that kind of thinking and developed a process-relational vision that has much in common with Buddhist thought. He did not completely free himself from the thinking against which he struggled, and his followers have tended in part to fall back into it. I have long thought that if Buddhists would engage in this effort with us, we could achieve still more consistent and accurate formulations.

Whitehead did not himself develop a quantum theory. However, David Bohm and Basil Hiley have recently formulated a quantum theory congenial to his thought. It provides a very different way of thinking of the quantum world than the traditional models have offered. Bohm was deeply influenced by Indian thought of a sort that was more Buddhist than Hindu. This indicates the kinds of contributions that Buddhism has already made to science and how much remains to be done.

My study of Whitehead also suggests to me that Buddhists could learn from this engagement. Although profound, and I believe basically true, most Buddhist teaching is formulated in images that remain imprecise. They leave many important questions unanswered. When one struggles with the task of explaining experimental data in terms of these images, greater precision necessarily develops. It is my belief that this greater precision will enrich Buddhist understanding.

One might respond that this kind of understanding is unimportant to Buddhism, that precision is needed is only where enlightenment is at stake. If that is the Buddhist view, I must respectfully disagree. However desirable and important enlightenment may be, the survival of a livable earth for our descendants is also desirable and important. Perhaps if all individuals attained enlightenment the social and economic problems would take care of themselves. But we cannot afford to wait until that happens before engaging the destructive forces in the world. I believe these include the worldview that is so closely connected with most scientific thinking.

In the past few decades there has emerged a movement of socially-engaged Buddhists. In part this was a response to Christian criticism. Sulak Sivaraksa of Thailand has been the primary leader of this group, and it may be better rooted in Thai Buddhism than in some other forms. Nevertheless, it has gained a following in the United States among Buddhists of a variety of backgrounds, especially among Euro-American converts. My experience with socially-engaged Buddhists has made me very enthusiastic. There is no group of Christians in whose judgment and commitment I have greater, or perhaps even equal, confidence. For one thing, they have integrated ecological thinking into their social thought much better than have most Christians. In addition, I think that in many cases their meditational practice has led to fuller personal integration around basic commitments.

The primary focus of this movement is, of course, social analysis and action. Nevertheless, some of these Buddhists are also engaged in thinking in the physical sciences, especially ecology. There is here a promising beginning of the engagement for which I hope and from which the world can expect much.

The world today is in bondage to the quest of wealth, and it accepts mainstream economic thought as its theology. This economic thought models itself on physics, unfortunately the physics of the nineteenth century. It treats human beings as isolated substances. Both the goal of wealth and this atomistic understanding of human beings are in radical contradiction with Buddhist teaching. Unfortunately, Buddhist habits of relative passivity toward authority are such that I do not hear the strong voice of protest that should come from this community. I hope that new habits of engagement with the sciences will characterize the next generation.